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Dan Jacob


Three Lessons to Learn from Quality Leadership

Take the right actions when things go wrong

Published: Thursday, March 31, 2016 - 14:21

Airbags, ignition switches, and even emissions software; although large recalls make the news at a regular pace, these are surrounded by scandal. News reports include claims of illegal or unethical activity executed by individuals or larger groups of people. Unfortunately, as new reports expose even more, it’s revealed that the activity was accepted or possibly encouraged by management, as well as the organization at large.

This is not a condemnation of Takata’s management or employees or even companies at large—like many professionals, they are dedicated, knowledgeable, and hard-working people. However, there are lessons in these issues that quality leadership and quality professionals need to embrace. Why was quality a quiet bystander? How should leadership ensure that this doesn’t happen in their house? What should quality management professionals do if they find themselves in a similar situation?

Quality, a teammate with accountability

The aforementioned offenses were reportedly performed in test labs and in the Production Part Approval Process (PPAP), areas where quality has dominion. These scandals have had a profoundly negative effect on the companies involved, the customers, the employees, and the public. Lists of specific employees were compiled and they were fired, and specific engineers and managers were personally singled out in the press. This public shaming highlights the personal accountability of individuals in these cases.

If these events happened in the domain of quality, why weren’t they reported? LNS Research firmly believes that quality should be a collaborative partner to other functions; in part because our statistics show that market leadership is strongly correlated with making quality a cross-functional responsibility with enterprisewide visibility and accountability.

However, although quality should be a cross-functional responsibility, the quality department is still an autonomous entity that is ultimately responsible for safeguarding the organization, the customer, and the public against the effects of harmful products. All businesses should have corporate values to protect the company, shareholders, and public against harm. Quality should embody these values.

Lesson 1: Quality must have the power to put a stop to behavior that could result in harm, and the courage to use that power

Quality is a responsibility of all, not just the quality department, but the quality department must always have the loudest and most authoritative voice backed by veto power, and use that veto power to protect the company and its customers.

Hidden problems, false culture

Many companies—including those making recent headlines—talk about commitment to quality and to customers. However, behind the veneer, their culture didn’t foster putting quality and the customer above all else, including competitive performance and cost pressures. A real and meaningful danger facing quality leaders is giving lip service to quality without a hard and fast commitment to quality at the executive level. This includes making hard decisions to delay a product launch to ensure that a safety issue found during testing is fixed, reset the direction when a product clearly is far from meeting hoped-for performance, or accept higher costs when a cost-saving measure introduces safety concerns.

Real commitments involve the following:
• Commitment to good quality comes from leaders setting expectations of transparency and ethical responsibility to the company, its customers, and possibly other entities such as the environment or third parties. Leadership doesn’t just entail setting the guidelines for others to follow, but setting the bar in the execution of those expectations.
• Commitment to good quality comes from a culture that actively promotes openness and reduces the perceived risk of being wrong. An organization measuring “organizational courage” knows it has an issue with fear. Focus on reducing the perceived risk, not on measuring employee courage.
• Commitment to good quality requires executive prioritization, which comes in many forms, including organizational power, boardroom visibility, and investment of adequate resources in operational excellence.
• Commitment to good quality must also come from the rank and file, which is often a give and take. Give good training, give recognition for standout quality contributors, and make a commitment to quality first.

There are many examples of great leadership and great quality organizational structures. For instance, Coca-Cola views quality as a critical component to customer satisfaction and the company’s success. As such, Coke’s vice president of quality reports directly to the CEO and Board of Directors, and has the power to shut down any plant at any location at any time.

Lesson 2: Quality leaderships must foster an open, transparent culture of quality, backed by executives, supported by employees, and with quality leadership as its exemplar.

When acquiescence is unethical

We can’t say that this one applies to Takata, but it needs to be said. Anyone working as a services or software provider in the quality space has walked away from at least a handful of companies over his or her career due to concerns about poor quality processes, culture, or technology. The poor performer’s quality professionals are usually aware that there are systemic issues, but have been unable to gain the executive support and resources to correct them, and so they muddle on, until...

Until the poor quality landscape results in a major quality escape that forces the attention of senior management. Then the burden of responsibility for failure is placed squarely on quality’s shoulders, as the “preventers of poor quality.” New quality personnel and technology are brought in to “fix our quality problem” by whipping the quality department into tip-top shape, which of course only partially addresses the problem, because quality is a cross-functional responsibility.

Let’s rewind. Fix the problem at its source. If there are systemic problems with quality and the operational excellence model, throw a flag. Engage Six Sigma teams if available, or escalate it. And if the problem is truly severe and falling on deaf ears, blow the whistle.

Lesson 3: If something is really wrong with the operational excellence landscape, don’t accept “no” for an answer.

Taking the right actions when things go wrong is what separates truly quality-centric organizations from those that only claim to be so. Keep these three lessons in mind and you’ll find it easier to stay on track.


About The Author

Dan Jacob’s picture

Dan Jacob

Dan Jacob is a research analyst at LNS Research primarily focused on the enterprise quality management systems (EQMS) practice. Jacob has more than 20 years of experience in quality, reliability, risk, and safety across several industries, primarily automotive, aerospace and defense, high tech and electronics, and medical devices. Jacob also operated his own firm providing engineering consulting to the medical devices and metals industries. Jacob graduated Magna Cum Laude from the University of Pittsburgh with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering.